Bread is one of the most fundamental and wonderful of foods. Its popularity has certainly stood the test of time and it’s one of the first things to sell out when holiday shop closures or adverse weather threaten. The first time you bite down on a piece of real bread is a memorable experience and even the industrial white-sliced loaf shines when it’s toasted.
The denizens of 18th century Napoli loved their flatbreads but thought nothing’s so good that it can’t be improved on. They topped them with tomato, rich in umami, and thus the pizza was born, probably one of the most successful and globally available foods. It’s also probably the most abused food. The rap sheet for crimes against pizza is long and includes biscuity base, ghastly topping combos, bitter over-herbed sauce, greasy cheese and (argh!) processed dairy cheese analogues. It’s sobering to contemplate how many people have never had the sublime experience of eating a real pizza made with authentic ingredients, cooked in a pizza oven.
To us, the heart of a good pizza experience is the bread and that is where the chef’s skills really count. The crust, charred in that distinctive leopard dappling, inflated around the border, a thin, crunchy layer on the outside, a springy, chewy, bready experience on the inside. The topping, complementing the bread, imparting that savoury umami and not making it soggy, except maybe that tiny bit in the middle where the concentrated cooking juices coalesce.
Our first experience of a wood-fired pizza was in Italy, so yummy that we could only exchange wide-eyed looks, our mouths refusing to open in case it tried to escape. We never expected to top that experience – but we did, right here in Cardiff on a cold winter’s evening at Riverside Christmas Market, when we tried Dusty Knuckle’s spot-on Margherita (M. NotLeafy initially scoffed at their wackier toppings). That Margherita was so good, it started a love affair with DK’s cooking that has continued ever since. Thanks to their innovative streak, we have sampled such noteworthy creations as chocolate pizza with banana, goat cheese pizza with peach and even Brussels sprout kimchi. For the record, they all work.
Phill and Deb Lewis, the couple who founded Dusty Knuckle, have since moved on from being itinerant market and street food vendors to having a permanent base at the Printhaus in Canton and have picked up numerous awards and mentions in prestigious publications such as:-
- Sustainable Restaurant Association’s Food Made Good Awards people’s favourite restaurant (2018)
- Top 10 Pizzeria in the UK from The Guardian (2017)
- Top 3 pop-up to permanent in Sunday Times 2017
- Top 25 Pizzeria in UK from The Sunday Times (2016)
- Top Pizza on Snapchat (2016).” – delicious. magazine
The Printhaus is an excellent locale but open to the elements which makes its income very seasonal. As we write, Dusty Knuckle are attempting to raise £40,000 via Kickstarter to help turn the 1950s Warden’s House in the grounds of Bute Park into an all year round venue. The emphasis will be on wood-fuelled cookery with outdoor fire-pits and grills for the better weather. We can’t wait.
When buying their pizza or any of their other dishes, you’re also buying into a whole ethical, sustainable and socially responsible philosophy; bottom line is, these people care about what they do and how they do it. The immediate benefits of that philosophy can be felt in the cooking, Phill doesn’t have to be on the premises for you to get a brilliant pizza, the passion for excellence and the techniques are clearly shared fully with everyone in the kitchen.
How can a food be sustainable or socially responsible though? What does it matter where the ingredients come from? We thought we’d explore these issues here but, since we know so little about it, we thought we’d better ask DK themselves – plus it gave us the opportunity to pose some other questions which we’ve been nosey about for a while. Deb was, alas, busy elsewhere but Phill kindly gave up some of his precious time to provide answers.
NL: How did you learn to make pizza?
Phill: It was just trial and error. It wasn’t the food that came first, it was the tools. We were planning a housewarming and I thought I’d build a wood oven and cook in there. It was that idea of cooking outside with fire that I was drawn to. I started messing with pizza and then got a bit obsessed with it, did the research; the 12 page AVPN* document which you have to adhere to if you want a proper Napolitan pizza. I went through lots of different styles, New York, Chicago and others to see which one I’d prefer and it was the Napolitano that floated my boat – I like the amount of detail behind it; I like the history behind it. And it turned into a living for a number of people which is lovely!
* (AVPN = The True Neapolitan Pizza Association, Associazione Verace Pizza Napolitana)
NL:Being ethical, sustainable and socially responsible, how do you do that, and what is the cost to you and the business?
Phill: This is something we think about a lot. We’ve always had a passion for social responsibility and social care and we started out wanting to make it as ethically sound and sustainable as possible but with only a surface knowledge of what that meant. We said, oh yes, we should use compostable packaging, but then found it may not compost unless you put it through a special process and you’re maybe better off using a single use plastic because the council can recycle them. It’s a minefield. As we have gone on, we’ve got more knowledgeable.
Every time I speak to someone about it I’m learning something new; our involvement in the Slow Food movement, going to Salone del Gusto every two years, learning about agromafia, ecosystems behind our food production. There’s a cost in terms of the research but that’s a joy, that’s fascinating to us.
The most significant cost though is time. It would be very easy for me to find one supplier that does lots of mediocre products, that could deliver once a week. I wouldn’t have to go round to markets and people’s houses to pick up stuff, I could do it all with a phone call. But it wouldn’t be Dusty Knuckle, it’s disingenuous to what we are.
Regarding ingredients, I know I could cut the cost of our San Marzano tomatoes by 75% and people might, or might not, notice but the agromafia are making tons of money selling knock-off versions. Our San Marzano tomatoes are from a single source, we’ve met the producers and they can them themselves, so it’s not just about the flavour it’s also the suppliers and the whole philosophy behind what they do.
The only caveat we have with our Safe Space kitchen takeover scheme is that we want to know where people are getting the ingredients from because we don’t want people coming in with cheap ingredients and jeopardising everything, and it goes against our philosophy. Otherwise they are free to do whatever they like.
Our reusable takeaway boxes are quite an expensive investment. We charge them at cost, but then we take money off every time somebody uses them. Over time though, that should balance out because we’ve completely got rid of disposable pizza boxes. Maybe you can liken it to sticking solar panels on your roof, there’s a cost up front but over several years you’re going to break even.
In terms of customer commitment, repeat custom and building a reputation, you have to go down the this-is-going-to-cost-us-more route, but also, for us, it’s always been because we want to do it and we love doing it and we want to do it right. The finance is a by-product but this is our livelihood and the livelihood of a number of people, so we have to make it work, but we really feel that we can keep that philosophy and so far it’s done us alright.
NL: Your wife Deb is your partner in the business, how does that work and what is the division of labour?
Phill: In the beginning we were renowned for turning up, and even cooking, with kids strapped to our backs. As we’ve grown, both as a business and a family, Deb has taken on more of the family responsibility but also does all the back of house work that we don’t farm out, financial, rotas, admin, invoices, the “fun” stuff haha! I think she’d like to be out and about more, and I think that will happen more once the childcare winds down. The last quarter of 2018 we’ve been focused on growth, so I’ve stepped out of the kitchen more and now both of us are doing that kind of operational, admin, preparational stuff.
Working and living together, at home we’ve had to put strict boundaries on when we stop talking about work, otherwise it can put a strain on each other when we need to unwind.
NL: Your charity trip to Naples living off cooking pizza was pretty amazing and challenging. What did you bring back from it?
Phill: I came back with a real reassurance that we were doing the right thing. When we got to Italy, we got this message saying the president of the AVPN* would like to see us in Naples because they’d got wind of what we were doing. It somehow got covered in two of the national papers and on the radio, we don’t know how, because we didn’t speak to anyone!
They demanded to know what we were doing and why. They looked at our oven and scoffed then spent the morning putting us through it. They softened a bit when we told them why we were there, and I cooked for them and they were happy and reassured me that we were doing it right.
We stayed there for 4 days and they made us a friend of the AVPN. The biggest thing was the relationships we made. That was February and we went back in the October because we were invited to cook pizza at the Chianti marathon and then invited to take part in the Dit’unto festival, which no-one outside Italy has ever been allowed to do. Now it’s like an annual pilgrimage for us. You should go, it’s the second Sunday of October every year.
What I love about the Italians is not just their food but their relationship with food, they respect every part of the process and it’s a lifestyle for them. Every time I return home from there, I come back with that rejuvenation, that feeling that yes, this is worth it. One of the reasons Bite Cardiff came into being was to try and bring that kind of community over here.
NL: The Warden’s House will have firepits. Since we are a vegetarian blog, we have to ask, what plans you have for veggie and even vegan food, other than pizza?
Phill: There’s nothing to say a firepit is all about meat is there? If you’re imaginative with the veg, in fact we’ll still adhere to our approach of 70% veg 30% meat. We want to stick to that principle that we should be eating less meat which is better quality. If the quality of the vegetables are good enough, simply over coals they are just magic. Everything just tastes better over fire, that’s the thing and that’s what the Warden’s house will be about, lots of grills and firepits and hanging meats and veg, and of course, there will be some non-fire dishes.
NL: Now the trivial question. What’s your fondest childhood food memory?
Phill: What a question! Er…my parents had a clothes shop and they took me to one of their wholesalers once. They must have had a kitchen, because they made me a steak sandwich. And I still, to this day, remember the taste of that steak sandwich, I’d never had anything like it. It was incredible.
I’m one of four, so when I was very young there were six of us and it was always sitting around the table for dinner and lots and lots of food. At Christmas there was always hundreds of people coming round randomly and we’d end up feasting at 11 o’clock at night, so the memories are all about the connections. I’m a strong believer that the flavour of the food is only a part of your experience, the environment you’re eating in, the people you’re with, the mood you’re in all contribute.
NL: That’s great Phill, thanks for your time and for the coffee.
Being vegetarians, we know how great it feels when you can be completely comfortable that what you’re eating adheres to your principles. Whatever your principles, when you are a Dusty Knuckle customer, as well a meal that will delight all your gastronomic sensory apparatus, you know that, in the entire chain of its production, nobody has been exploited, the environmental impact is minimal and whole communities of people with the same ideals have benefited from your purchase. You can feel the love of food created by people who want to be nice to others and the world around them and if there’s one thing we have learnt in our many years of eating, it’s that the best food comes from nice people.
Want to go there?
Dusty Knuckle Pizza Company
70a Llandaff Road, Cardiff, CF11 9NL
Monday & Tuesday: Closed
Wednesday, Thursday & Friday: 17.00-23.00
Warden’s House Kickstarter project
For info on sister sites: Ogmore Beach & The TYF Courtyard, St David’s, West Wales
Site at Goods’ Shed, Hood Road, Barry: Pending development
Private hire of mobile pizza oven & wedding rickshaw available (see website for details)